How to Raise a Gracious Kid

When I asked my two kids about graciousness, their answer surprised me…

Sometimes I get to work a soup-kitchen shift with my 20-year-old son. Every time a guest thanks him for serving up their rice and lentils, he smiles and says “My pleasure!” And every time he smiles and says “My pleasure!” my baggy chest splits open and my ridiculous heart bursts out of it. Oh, this lovely, long-haired, gracious man-child! “I think our kids saying ‘My pleasure’ might be the actual best thing in my life right now,” I say to my husband, who says neither, “That’s because you’re a total loser,” nor, “Our same kids who left a mysterious Taco Bell bag in the refrigerator for three weeks before you exasperatedly threw it away?” He just smiles and says, “I know what you mean.”

“Courteous, kind, pleasant,” is the dictionary definition of gracious, which sounds so beigely insipid, like your life’s purpose is the making and eating of oatmeal. But to me, the word has always held a special quality — a kind of warm expansiveness — maybe because of the grace at its root. Graciousness makes me picture a kind of plush red carpet rolling out in front of everybody as they move through the world. It’s what makes it easier on people to be helped, especially people who are dependent on you: babies, children, sick folks, old folks, guests you’re hosting or people in need. It’s what makes it easier on people to help you. It communicates how much other people, and their efforts, their very being, matter (so much). It’s my British mother and New-York-Jew father still saying “Thank you, my darling” to each other — for the cup of tea, the front section of the newspaper, a steady hand on the small of a back, this plate of spaghetti — after 55 years of marriage.

When I asked my own kids about graciousness, they said that we’d basically given them various all-purpose scripts to follow, which made it easier to improvise as they grew up. (Who knew?) This is what they came up with:

Being helpful:
“What can I do to help?”
“Should I put my plate in the dishwasher / grate this parmesan cheese / set the table?”
“I’d be happy to.”
“My pleasure!”
“You’re so welcome.”

Asking for help:
“Help, please!” #thebabyversion
“Do you have a minute to help me brainstorm this email / clean up this cat barf / figure out if these clothes still fit?”
“I’d be so grateful if. . . .”
“I could really use a hand.”

Noticing efforts on your behalf:
“You made me my favorite lasagna / granola / lunch!”
“Ahhh, you signed my permission slip / renewed my library books / washed my uniform.”
“I’m so excited about the trip / the concert you got tickets to / the movie you’re taking me and my friends to see!”

Being grateful:
“I’d love that.”
“That was exactly what I needed.”
“I really enjoyed dinner / that play / our time with you!”
“This is so incredibly helpful.”
“Thank you so much for having us / for doing that / for giving me this.”

Taking responsibility:
“I’m so sorry.”
“Oof. That hurt you. I can see why.”
“Can I do anything to make it better? Do you need a hug? An ice pack?” (Please note that this has been parlayed by my children into their comedic stock response to me being hurt or sad: “Do you need a band aid? Should I drive you to the ER?” they say, after they climb into my bed and accidentally scratch my shin half off with their terrible toenails. But it does always make me laugh.)

Of course, being gracious doesn’t look the same across families or cultures. (An Iranian friend just told me how insulted her family would be if the kids sent thank-you notes for gifts.) It doesn’t mean you never say no or that you don’t protect yourself from unreliable people or leering men (I have especially tried to teach our daughter this). It doesn’t mean you don’t yell at a protest or stand up to injustice. But it does means making people’s lives easier and better where you can. Spreading a little love and light and [cringe] pleasantness.

And the truth is? These are the same behaviors we’ve practiced with our kids, too. We’ve said, “Good morning, my love!” when the baby opened her eyes, when the cranky toddler staggered in groaning like a dinosaur, when the teenagers limped downstairs under the crushing weight of their backpacks. We smiled into the grubby face we were wiping, at the person whose quesadilla we were cutting up with scissors, whose temperature we were taking, whose college essay we were proofreading. We thanked them for the slobbery kiss, the bite of their fettuccini alfredo, taking a walk with us in the woods when we asked, bringing their dishes to the sink, being so patient with their grandparents. We apologized for interrupting their game when it was time to go, for forgetting that they hated celery, for not listening well enough when they were telling us something that mattered, for being impatient. We asked if they had a minute to please help us with the salad, the guest bed, this financial app, the driving. We put down our phones to greet them when they came home from school. We still do.

We don’t say, “Thank you for being these beautiful people in our lives.” We just imply it daily.

Catherine Newman is the author of Catastrophic Happiness and the upcoming How to Be a Person, a guide for kids and teenagers.

P.S. 21 completely subjective rules for raising teenage boys, 21 completely subjective rules for raising teenage girls and how to teach kids about consent.

(Illustration by Abbey Lossing for Cup of Jo.)